When it comes to women characters, who controls the narrative?

Dear Reader,

Greetings from San Antonio! (I started this in San Antonio last week so…it’s still technically true).

I attended the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference last week in San Antonio. It’s a pretty great conference usually. This year, the Coronavirus scared many people from going.

But somehow, despite that, the conference turned out pretty good and I made connections with people, had amazing conversations, and learned many more things, unexpected things.

One of the panels I went was about Badass Women in literature and it got my mind thinking about some things in modern literature and the role of women as characters. Who we are? What are we supposed to be?

The feminist in me says anything she can be anything she wants to be. However, the reader and burgeoning academic in me knows that is not true. When it comes to literature, cannon, classical, and modern, women usually are stereotyped and are devoid of any depth. They are reduced to a label — the mother, the whore, the sidekick, the virgin.

This is seen so much in noir, a genre I love, read, and (when the moment strikes) write in. Women are the femme fatale or the secretary. Either she’s a good girl or a bad girl and even in those two labels there is no room for shades of gray.

Women, as do the other humans, contain multitudes. And among them is “the burden of their secrets.”

Yes, that last sentence was surprising. I heard that in the panel about La Llorona, a folklore tale from Latin America, primarily Mexico but other parts of the Americas have this story. The Wailing Woman of the river (or insert other body of water) comes out at now crying for her children. She had drowned them after her husband left her. Or, in some versions, she drowned her children because she was too poor to feed them and killed them as an act of kindness. Or, in other versions, she was sent back down to Earth to look for her children and can not enter the afterlife until she finds them.

Or maybe it’s just a tale told to children to keep them in line, like the boogie man.

Regardless of the version of this story, any character, whether it’s a primary or secondary character, needs to have dimension. But I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that characters would have secrets; not secrets they keep from other character but secrets they keep from themselves.

And that is depth, ladies and gentlemen. That is humanity.

Trauma suffers in silence and when those secrets don’t come out in a constructive way, it can seem that someone, the character, maybe acting out of turn. They may not have anything

And, as I tell my students, context is everything.

I think about stories like La Llorona (the actual story and not the movie) and how they have been passed down through the generations. What secrets did the Wailing Woman have to bare? What was her silent trauma? Was the drowning of her children the final act of a trigger from a trauma buried so deep she didn’t even realize it?

This character has been villainized and in that villainy she continues to be a victim herself. But she may not be real, you say? It doesn’t matter. How we interpret this story or folktale or cautionary tale says mountains on how women are treated in story.

The Mother.

The Whore.

The Sidekick.

Evil vs Good.

Damaged vs Naive.

Frankly, if we can’t get it right on the page, how can we get it right in real life. Our literature reflects our values right back to us. These stories that devalue women make it into our classroom, on state tests, and our drilled into students’ heads.

And the cycle continues.

In the impromptu panel I became a part of, I said this one phrase: “Who ever controls the narrative controls the world.”

So, I leave this question to you, dear Reader:

Who is controlling the narrative about women? Who is controlling that part of the world?

Think about it and get back to me.

Waiting for your answer,

–Icess

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